The Village Rector

Author: Honore de Balzac

XVII the Revolution of July Judged at Montegnac

A fortnight later, in December, and in spite of the cold, Monsieur Grossetete came to the chateau de Montegnac, to "present his protege," whom Veronique and Monsieur Bonnet were impatiently awaiting.

"I must love you very much, my dear child," said the old man, taking Veronique’s two hands in his, and kissing them with that gallantry of old men which never displeases women, "yes, I must love you well, to come from Limoges in such weather. But I wanted to present to you myself the gift of Monsieur Gregoire Gerard here present. You’ll find him a man after your own heart, Monsieur Bonnet," added the banker, bowing affectionately to the rector.

Gerard’s external appearance was not prepossessing. He was of middle height, stocky in shape, the neck sunk in the shoulders, as they say vulgarly; he had yellow hair, and the pink eyes of an albino, with lashes and eyebrows almost white. Though his skin, like that of all persons of that description, was amazingly white, marks of the smallbox and other very visible scars had destroyed its original brilliancy. Study had probably injured his sight, for he wore glasses.

When he removed the great cloak of a gendarme in which he was wrapped, it was seen that his clothing did not improve his general appearance. The manner in which his garments were put on and buttoned, his untidy cravat, his rumpled shirt, were signs of the want of personal care with which men of science, all more or less absent-minded, are charged. As in the case of most thinkers, his countenance and his attitude, the development of his bust and the thinness of his legs, betrayed a sort of bodily debility produced by habits of meditation. Nevertheless, the ardor of his heart and the vigor of his mind, proofs of which were given in this letter, gleamed from his forehead, which was white as Carrara marble. Nature seemed to have reserved to herself that spot in order to place there visible signs of the grandeur, constancy, and goodness of the man. The nose, like that of most men of the true Gallic race, was flattened. His mouth, firm and straight, showed absolute discretion and the instinct of economy. But the whole mask, worn by study, looked prematurely old.

"We must begin by thanking you, monsieur," said Madame Graslin, addressing the engineer, "for being willing to direct an enterprise in a part of the country which can offer you no other pleasure than the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing a real good."

"Madame," he replied, "Monsieur Grossetete has told me enough about your enterprise as we came along to make me already glad that I can in any way be useful to you; the prospect of living in close relations with you and Monsieur Bonnet seems to me charming. Unless I am dismissed from this region, I expect to end my days here."

"We will try not to let you change your mind," replied Madame Graslin, smiling.

"Here," said Grossetete, addressing Veronique, whom he took aside, "are the papers which the /procureur-general/ gave to me. He was quite surprised that you did not address your inquiry about Catherine Curieux to him. All that you wished has been done immediately, with the utmost promptitude and devotion. Three months hence Catherine Curieux will be sent to you."

"Where is she?" asked Veronique.

"She is now in the hospital Saint-Louis," replied the old man; "they are awaiting her recovery before sending her from Paris."

"Ah! is the poor girl ill?"

"You will find all necessary information in these papers," said Grossetete, giving Veronique a packet.

Madame Graslin returned to her guests to conduct them into the magnificent dining-room on the ground-floor. She sat at table, but did not herself take part in the dinner; since her arrival at Montegnac she had made it a rule to take her meals alone, and Aline, who knew the reason of this withdrawal, faithfully kept the secret of it till her mistress was in danger of death.

The mayor, the /juge de paix/, and the doctor of Montegnac had been invited.

The doctor, a young man twenty-seven years of age, named Roubaud, was extremely desirous of knowing a woman so celebrated in Limoges. The rector was all the more pleased to present him at the chateau because he wanted to gather a little society around Veronique to distract her mind and give it food. Roubaud was one of those thoroughly welltrained young physicians whom the Ecole de Medecine in Paris sends forth to the profession. He would undoubtedly have shone on the vast stage of the capital; but frightened by the clash of ambitions in Paris, and knowing himself more capable than pushing, more learned than intriguing, his gentle disposition led him to choose the narrow career of the provinces, where he hoped to be sooner appreciated than in Paris.

At Limoges, Roubaud came in contact with the settled practice of the regular physicians and the habits of the people; he therefore let himself be persuaded by Monsieur Bonnet, who, judging by the gentle and winning expression of his face, thought him well-suited to co-operate in his own work at Montegnac. Roubaud was small and fair; his general appearance was rather insipid, but his gray eyes betrayed the depths of the physiologist and the patient tenacity of a studious man. There was no physician in Montegnac except an old army-surgeon, more devoted to his cellar than to his patients, and too old to continue with any vigor the hard life of a country doctor. At the present time he was dying.

Roubaud had been in Montegnac about eighteen months, and was much liked there. But this young pupil of Desplein and the successors of Cabanis did not believe in Catholicism. He lived in a state of profound indifference as to religion, and did not desire to come out of it. The rector was in despair. Not that Roubaud did any wrong; he never spoke against religion, and his duties were excuse enough for his absence from church; besides, he was incapable of trying to undermine the faith of others, and indeed behaved outwardly as the best of Catholics; he simply prohibited himself from thinking of a problem which he considered above the range of human thought. When the rector heard him say that pantheism had been the religion of all great minds he set him down as inclining to the doctrine of Pythagoras on reincarnation.

Roubaud, who saw Madame Graslin for the first time, experienced a violent sensation when he met her. Science revealed to him in her expression, her attitude, in the ravages of her face, untold sufferings both moral and physical, a nature of almost superhuman force, great faculties which would support her under the most conflicting trials; he detected all,—even the darkest corners of that nature so carefully hidden. He felt that some evil, some malady, was devouring the heart of that fine creature; for just as the color of a fruit shows the presence of a worm within it, so certain tints in the human face enable physicians to detect a poisoning thought.

From this moment Monsieur Roubaud attached himself so deeply to Madame Graslin that he became afraid of loving her beyond the permitted line of simple friendship. The brow, the bearing, above all, the glance of Veronique’s eye had a sort of eloquence that men invariably understand; it said as plainly that she was dead to love as other women say the contrary by a reversal of the same eloquence. The doctor suddenly vowed to her, in his heart, a chivalrous worship.

He exchanged a rapid glance with the rector, who thought to himself, "Here’s the thunderbolt which will convert my poor unbeliever; Madame Graslin will have more eloquence than I."

The mayor, an old countryman, amazed at the luxury of this dining-room and surprised to find himself dining with one of the richest men in the department, had put on his best clothes, which rather hampered him, and this increased his mental awkwardness. Moreover, Madame Graslin in her mourning garments seemed to him very imposing; he was therefore mute. After living all his life as a farmer at Saint- Leonard, he had bought the only habitable house in Montegnac and cultivated with his own hands the land belonging to it. Though he knew how to read and write, he would have been incapable of fulfilling his functions were it not for the help of his clerk and the /juge de paix/, who prepared his work for him. He was very anxious to have a notary established in Montegnac, in order that he might shift the burden of his responsibility on to that officer’s shoulders. But the poverty of the village and its outlying districts made such a functionary almost useless, and the inhabitants had recourse when necessary to the notaries of the chief town of the arrondissement.

The /juge de paix/, named Clousier, was formerly a lawyer in Limoges, where cases had deserted him because he insisted on putting into practice that fine axiom that the lawyer is the best judge of the client and the case. In 1809 he obtained his present post, the meagre salary of which just enabled him to live. He had now reached a stage of honorable but absolute poverty. After a residence of twenty-one years in this poor village the worthy man, thoroughly countrified, looked, top-coat and all, exactly like the farmers about him.

Under this coarse exterior Clousier hid a clear-sighted mind, given to lofty meditation on public policy, though he himself had fallen into a state of complete indifference, derived from his intimate knowledge of men and their interests. This man, who baffled for a long time the rector’s perspicacity and who might in a higher sphere have proved another l’Hopital, incapable of intrigue like all really profound persons, was by this time living in the contemplative state of an ancient hermit. Independent through privation, no personal consideration acted on his mind; he knew the laws and judged impartially. His life, reduced to the merest necessaries, was pure and regular. The peasants loved Monsieur Clousier and respected him for the disinterested fatherly care with which he settled their differences and gave them advice in their daily affairs. The "goodman Clousier" as all Montegnac called him, had a nephew with him as clerk, an intelligent young man, who afterwards contributed much to the prosperity of the district.

Old Clousier’s personal appearance was remarkable for a broad, high forehead and two bushes of white hair which stood out from his head on either side of it. His highly colored complexion and well-developed corpulence might have made persons think, in spite of his actual sobriety, that he cultivated Bacchus as well as Troplong and Toullier. His half-extinct voice was the sign of an oppressive asthma. Perhaps the dry air of Montegnac had contributed to fix him there. He lived in a house arranged for him by a well-to-do cobbler to whom it belonged. Clousier had already seen Veronique at church, and he had formed his opinion of her without communicating it to any one, not even to Monsieur Bonnet, with whom he was beginning to be intimate. For the first time in his life the /juge de paix/ was to be thrown in with persons able to appreciate him.

When the company were seated round a table handsomely appointed (for Veronique had sent all her household belongings from Limoges to Montegnac) the six guests felt a momentary embarrassment. The doctor, the mayor and the /juge de paix/ knew nothing of Grossetete and Gerard. But during the first course, old Grossetete’s hearty goodhumor broke the ice of a first meeting. In addition to this, Madame Graslin’s cordiality led on Gerard, and encouraged Roubaud. Under her touch these souls full of fine qualities recognized their relation, and felt they had entered a sympathetic circle. So, by the time the dessert appeared on the table, when the glass and china with gilded edges sparkled, and the choicer wines were served by Aline and Champion and Grossetete’s valet, the conversation became sufficiently confidential to allow these four choice minds, thus meeting by chance, to express their real thoughts on matters of importance, such as men like to discuss when they can do so and be sure of the discretion of their companions.

"Your furlough came just in time to let you witness the revolution of July," said Grossetete to Gerard, with an air as if he asked an opinion of him.

"Yes," replied the engineer. "I was in Paris during the three famous days. I saw all; and I came to sad conclusions."

"What were they?" said the rector, eagerly.

"There is no longer any patriotism except under dirty shirts," replied Gerard. "In that lies the ruin of France! July was the voluntary defeat of all superiorities,—name, fortune, talent. The ardent, devoted masses carried the day against the rich and the intelligent, to whom ardor and devotion are repugnant."

"To judge by what has happened during the past year," said Monsieur Clousier, "this change of government is simply a premium given to an evil that is sapping us,—individualism. Fifteen years hence all questions of a generous nature will be met by, /What is that to me?/— the great cry of Freedom of Will descending from the religious heights where Luther, Calvin, Zwinglius, and Knox introduced it, into even political economy. /Every one for himself/; /every man his own master/,—those two terrible axioms form, with the /What is that to me?/ a trinity of wisdom to the burgher and the small land-owner. This egotism results from the vices of our present civil legislation (too hastily made), to which the revolution of July has just given a terrible confirmation."

The /juge de paix/ fell back into his usual silence after thus expressing himself; but the topics he suggested must have occupied the minds of those present. Emboldened by Clousier’s words, and moved by the look which Gerard exchanged with Grossetete, Monsieur Bonnet ventured to go further.

"The good King Charles X.," he said, "has just failed in the most farsighted and salutary enterprise a monarch ever planned for the welfare of the people confided to him; and the Church ought to feel proud of the part she took in his councils. But the upper classes deserted him in heart and mind, just as they had already deserted him on the great question of the law of primogeniture,—the lasting honor of the only bold statesman the Restoration has produced, namely, the Comte de Peyronnet. To reconstitute the nation through the family; to take from the press its venomous action and confine it to its real usefulness; to recall the elective Chamber to its true functions; and to restore to religion its power over the people,—such were the four cardinal points of the internal policy of the house of Bourbon. Well, twenty years from now all France will have recognized the necessity of that grand and sound policy. Charles X. was in greater peril in the situation he chose to leave than in that in which his paternal power has been defeated. The future of our noble country—where all things will henceforth be brought periodically into question, where our rulers will discuss incessantly instead of acting, where the press, become a sovereign power, will be the instrument of base ambitions— this future will only prove the wisdom of the king who has just carried away with him the true principles of government; and history will bear in mind the courage with which he resisted his best friends after having probed the wound and seen the necessity of curative measures, which were not sustained by those for whose sake he put himself into the breach."

"Ah! monsieur," cried Gerard, "you are frank; you go straight to your thought without disguise, and I won’t contradict you. Napoleon in his Russian campaign was forty years in advance of the spirit of his age; he was never understood. The Russia and England of 1830 explains the campaign of 1812. Charles X. has been misunderstood in the same way. It is quite possible that in twenty-five years from now his ordinances may become the laws of the land."

"France, too eloquent not to gabble, too full of vanity to bow down before real talent, is, in spite of the sublime good sense of its language and the mass of its people, the very last nation in which two deliberative chambers should have been attempted," said the /juge de paix/. "Or, at any rate, the weaknesses of our national character should have been guarded against by the admirable restrictions which Napoleon’s experience laid upon them. Our present system may succeed in a country whose action is circumscribed by the nature of its soil, like England; but the law of primogeniture applied to the transmission of land is absolutely necessary; when that law is suppressed the system of legislative representation becomes absurd. England owes her existence to the quasi-feudal law which entails landed property and family mansions on the eldest son. Russia is based on the feudal right of autocracy. Consequently those two nations are to-day on the highroad of startling progress. Austria could only resist our invasions and renew the way against Napoleon by virtue of that law of primogeniture which preserves in the family the active forces of a nation, and supplies the great productions necessary to the State. The house of Bourbon, feeling that it was slipping to the third rank in Europe, by reason of liberalism, wanted to regain its rightful place and there maintain itself, and the nation has thrown it over at the very time it was about to save the nation. I am sure I don’t know how low down the present system will drop us."

"If we have a war, France will be without horses, as Napoleon was in 1813, when, being reduced to those of France only, he could not profit by his two victories of Lutzen and Botzen, and so was crushed at Leipzig," cried Grossetete. "If peace continues, the evil will only increase. Twenty-five years from now the race of cattle and horses will have diminished in France by one half."

"Monsieur Grossetete is right," remarked Gerard. "So that the work you are undertaking here, madame," he added, addressing Veronique, "is really a service done to the country."

"Yes," said the /juge de paix/, "because Madame has but one son, and the inheritance will not be divided up; but how long will that condition last? For a certain length of time the magnificent culture which you are about to introduce will, let us hope, belong to only one proprietor, who will continue to breed horned beasts and horses; but sooner or later the day must come when these forests and fields will be divided up and sold in small parcels. Divided and redivided, the six thousand acres of that plain will have a thousand or twelve hundred owners, and thenceforth—no more horses and cattle!"

"Oh! as for those days"—began the mayor.

"There! don’t you hear the /What is that to me?/ Monsieur Clousier talked of?" cried Monsieur Grossetete. "Taken in the act! But, monsieur," resumed the banker, gravely addressing the dumfounded mayor, "those days have really come. In a radius of thirty miles round Paris the land is so divided up into small holdings that milch cows are no longer seen. The Commune of Argenteuil contains thirty-eight thousand eight hundred and eighty-five parcels of land, many of which do not return a farthing of revenue. If it were not for the rich refuse of Paris, which produces a fodder of strong quality, I don’t know how dairymen would get along. As it is, this over-stimulating food and confinement in close stables produce inflammatory diseases, of which the cows often die. They use cows in the neighborhood of Paris as they do horses in the street. Crops more profitable than hay —vegetables, fruit, apple orchards, vineyards—are taking the place of meadow-lands. In a few years we shall see milk sent to Paris by the mail-coaches as they now send fish. What is going on around Paris is also going on round all the large cities of France; the land will thus be used up before many years are gone. Chaptel states that in 1800 there were barely two million acres of vineyard in France; a careful estimate would give ten million to-day. Divided /ad infinitum/ by our present system of inheritance, Normandy will lose half her production of horses and cattle; but she will have a monopoly of milk in Paris, for her climate, happily, forbids grape culture. We shall soon see a curious phenomenon in the progressive rise in the cost of meat. In twenty years from now, in 1850, Paris, which paid seven to eleven sous for a pound of beef in 1814, will be paying twenty—unless there comes a man of genius who can carry out the plan of Charles X."

"You have laid your finger on the mortal wound of France," said the /juge de paix/. "The root of our evils lies in the section relating to inheritance in the Civil Code, in which the equal division of property among heirs is ordained. That’s the pestle that pounds territory into crumbs, individualizes fortunes, and takes from them their needful stability; decomposing ever and never recomposing,—a state of things which must end in the ruin of France. The French Revolution emitted a destructive virus to which the July days have given fresh activity. This vitiating element is the accession of the peasantry to the ownership of land. In the section ’On Inheritance’ is the principle of the evil, the peasant is the means through which it works. No sooner does that class get a parcel of land into its maw than it begins to subdivide it, till there are scarcely three furrows left in each lot. And even then the peasant does not stop! He divides the three furrows across their length, as Monsieur Grossetete has just shown us at Argenteuil. The unreasonable price which the peasant attaches to the smallest scrap of his land makes it impossible to repurchase and restore a fine estate. Monsieur," he went on, indicating Grossetete, "has just mentioned the diminution in the raising of horses and cattle; well, the Code has much to do with that. The peasantproprietor owns cows; he looks to them for his means of living; he sells the calves, he sells his butter; he never dreams of raising cattle, still less of raising horses; but as he cannot raise enough fodder to support his cows through a dry season, he sends them to market when he can feed them no longer. If by some fatal chance the hay were to fail for two years running, you would see a startling change the third year in the price of beef, but especially in that of veal."

"That may put a stop to ’patriotic banquets,’" said the doctor, laughing.

"Oh!" exclaimed Madame Graslin, looking at Roubaud, "can’t politics get on without the wit of journalism, even here?"

"In this lamentable business, the bourgeoisie plays the same /role/ as the pioneers of America," continued Clousier. "It buys up great estates, which the peasantry could not otherwise acquire. It cuts them up and then sells, either at auction or in small lots at private sale, to the peasants. Everything is judged by figures in these days, and I know none more eloquent than these. France has ninety-nine million acres, which, subtracting highways, roads, dunes, canals, and barren, uncultivated regions deserted by capital, may be reduced to eighty millions. Now out of eighty millions of acres to thirty-two millions of inhabitants we find one hundred and twenty-five millions of small lots registered on the tax-list (I don’t give fractions). Thus, you will observe, we have gone to the utmost limit of agrarian law, and yet we have not seen the last of poverty or dissatisfaction. Those who divide territory into fragments and lessen production have, of course, plenty of organs to cry out that true social justice consists in giving every man a life interest, and no more, in a parcel of land; perpetual ownership, they say, is robbery. The Saint-Simonians are already proclaiming that doctrine."

"The magistrate has spoken," said Grossetete, "and here’s what the banker adds to those bold considerations. The fact that the peasantry and the lesser bourgeoisie can now acquire land does France an injury which the government seems not even to suspect. We may estimate the number of peasant families, omitting paupers, at three millions. These families subsist on wages. Wages are paid in money, and not in kind—"

"Yes, that’s another blunder of our laws!" cried Clousier, interrupting the banker. "The right to pay in kind might have been granted in 1790; now, if we attempted to carry such a law, we should risk a revolution."

"Therefore, as I was about to say, the proletary draws to himself the money of the country," resumed Grossetete. "Now the peasant has no other passion, desire, or will, than to die a land-owner. This desire, as Monsieur Clousier has well shown, was born of the Revolution, and is the direct result of the sale of the National domain. A man must be ignorant indeed of what is going on all over France in the country regions if he is not aware that these three million families are yearly hoarding at least fifty francs, thus subtracting a hundred and fifty millions from current use. The science of political economy has made it an axiom that a five-franc piece, passing through a hundred hands in one day, is equivalent to five hundred francs. Now, it is perfectly plain to all of us who live in the country and observe the state of affairs, that every peasant has his eye on the land he covets; he is watching and waiting for it, and he never invests his savings elsewhere; he buries them. In seven years the savings thus rendered inert and unproductive amount to eleven hundred million francs. But since the lesser bourgeoisie bury as much more, with the same purpose, France loses every seven years the interest of at least two thousand millions,—that is to say, about one hundred millions; a loss which in forty-two years amounts to six hundred million francs. But she not only loses six hundred millions, she fails to create with that money manufacturing or agricultural products, which represent a loss of twelve hundred millions; for, if the manufactured product were not double in value to its cost price, commerce could not exist. The proletariat actually deprives itself of six hundred millions in wages. These six hundred millions of dead loss (representing to a stern economist a loss of twelve hundred millions, through lack of the benefits of circulation) explain the condition of inferiority in which our commerce, our merchant service, and our agriculture stand, as compared with England. In spite of the difference of the two territories, which is more than two thirds in our favor, England could remount the cavalry of two French armies, and she has meat for every man. But there, as the system of landed property makes it almost impossible for the lower classes to obtain it, money is not hoarded; it becomes commercial, and is turned over. Thus, besides the evil of parcelling the land, involving that of the diminution of horses, cattle, and sheep, the section of the Code on inheritance costs us six hundred millions of interest, lost by the hoarding of the money of the peasantry and bourgeoisie, and twelve hundred millions, at least, of products; or, including the loss from non-circulation, three thousand millions in half a century!"

"The moral effect is worse than the material effect," cried the rector. "We are making beggar-proprietors among the people and halftaught communities of the lesser bourgeoisie; and the fatal maxim ’Each for himself,’ which had its effect upon the upper classes in July of this year, will soon have gangrened the middle classes. A proletariat devoid of sentiment, with no other god than envy, no other fanaticism than the despair of hunger, without faith, without belief, will come forward before long and put its foot on the heart of the nation. Foreigners, who have thriven under monarchical rule, will find that, having royalty, we have no king; having legality, we have no laws; having property, no owners; no government with our elections, no force with freedom, no happiness with equality. Let us hope that before that day comes God may raise up in France a providential man, one of those Elect who give a new mind to nations, and like Sylla or like Marius, whether he comes from above or rises from below, remakes society."

"He would be sent to the assizes," said Gerard. "The sentence pronounced against Socrates and Jesus Christ would be rendered against them in 1831. In these days as in the old days, envious mediocrity lets thinkers die of poverty, and so gets rid of the great political physicians who have studied the wounds of France, and who oppose the tendencies of their epoch. If they bear up under poverty, common minds ridicule them or call them dreamers. In France, men revolt in the moral world against the great man of the future, just as they revolt in the political world against a sovereign."

"In the olden time sophists talked to a limited number of men; to-day the periodical press enables them to lead astray a nation," cried the /juge de paix/; "and that portion of the press which pleads for right ideas finds no echo."

The mayor looked at Monsieur Clousier in amazement. Madame Graslin, glad to find in a simple /juge de paix/ a man whose mind was occupied with serious questions, said to Monsieur Roubaud, her neighbor, "Do you know Monsieur Clousier?"

"Not rightly until to-day, madame. You are doing miracles," he answered in a whisper. "And yet, look at his brow, how noble in shape! Isn’t it like the classic or traditional brow given by sculptors to Lycurgus and the Greek sages? The revolution of July has an evidently retrograde tendency," said the doctor (who might in his student days have made a barricade himself), after carefully considering Grossetete’s calculation.

"These ideas are threefold," continued Clousier. "You have talked of law and finance, but how is it with the government itself? The royal power, weakened by the doctrine of national sovereignty, in virtue of which the election of August 9, 1830, has just been made, will endeavor to counteract that rival principle which gives to the people the right to saddle the nation with a new dynasty every time it does not fully comprehend the ideas of its king. You will see that we shall then have internal struggles which will arrest for long periods together the progress of France."

"All these reefs have been wisely evaded by England," remarked Gerard. "I have been there; I admire that beehive, which sends its swarms over the universe and civilizes mankind,—a people among whom discussion is a political comedy, which satisfies the masses and hides the action of power, which then works freely in its upper sphere; a country where elections are not in the hands of a stupid bourgeoisie, as they are in France. If England were parcelled out into small holdings the nation would no longer exist. The land-owning class, the lords, guide the social mechanism. Their merchant-service, under the nose of Europe, takes possession of whole regions of the globe to meet the needs of their commerce and to get rid of their paupers and malcontents. Instead of fighting capacities, as we do, thwarting them, nullifying them, the English aristocratic class seeks out young talent, rewards it, and is constantly assimilating it. Everything which concerns the action of the government, in the choice of men and things, is prompt in England, whereas with us all is slow; and yet the English are slow by nature, while we are impatient. With them money is bold and actively employed; with us it is timid and suspicious. What Monsieur Grossetete has said of the industrial losses which the hoarding peasantry inflict on France has its proof in a fact I will show to you in two words: English capital, by its perpetual turning over, has created ten thousand millions of manufacturing and interest-bearing property; whereas French capital, which is far more abundant, has not created one tenth of that amount."

"And that is all the more extraordinary," said Roubaud, "because they are lymphatic, and we, as a general thing, are sanguine and energetic."

"Ah! monsieur," said Clousier, "there you touch a great question, which ought to be studied: How to find institutions properly adapted to repress the temperament of a people! Assuredly Cromwell was a great legislator. He alone made the England of to-day, by inventing the ’Navigation Act,’ which has made the English enemies of all the world, and infused into them a ferocious pride and self-conceit, which is their mainstay. But, in spite of their Malta citadel, if France and Russia will only comprehend the part the Mediterranean and the Black Sea ought to be made to play in the future, the road to Asia through Egypt or by the Euphrates, made feasible by recent discoveries, will kill England, as in former times the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope killed Venice."

"Not one word of God’s providence in all this!" cried the rector. "Monsieur Clousier and Monsieur Roubaud are oblivious of religion. How is it with you, monsieur?" he added, turning to Gerard.

"Protestant," put in Grossetete.

"You guessed it," cried Veronique, looking at the rector as she took Clousier’s arm to return to the salon.

The prejudice Gerard’s appearance excited against him had been quickly dispelled, and the three notables congratulated themselves on so good an acquisition.

"Unfortunately," said Monsieur Bonnet, "there is a cause of antagonism between Russia and the Catholic countries which border the Mediterranean, in the very unimportant schism which separates the Greek religion from the Latin religion; and it is a great misfortune for humanity."

"We all preach our own saint," said Madame Graslin. "Monsieur Grossetete thinks of the lost millions; Monsieur Clousier, of the overthrow of rights; the doctor here regards legislation as a question of temperaments; and the rector sees an obstacle to the good understanding of France and Russia in religion."

"Add to that, madame," said Gerard, "that I see, in the hoarding of capital by the peasant and the small burgher, the postponement of the building of railroads in France."

"Then what is it you all want?" she asked.

"We want the wise State councillors who, under the Emperor, reflected on the laws, and a legislative body elected by the intelligence of the country as well as by the land-owners, whose only function would be to oppose bad legislation and capricious wars. The Chamber, as constituted to-day, will proceed, as you will soon see, to govern, and that is the first step to legal anarchy."

"Good God!" cried the rector, in a flush of sacred patriotism, "how can such enlightened minds as these," and he motioned to Clousier, Roubaud, and Gerard, "how can they see evil so clearly and suggest remedies without first looking within and applying a remedy to themselves? All of you, who represent the attacked classes, recognize the necessity of the passive obedience of the masses of the State, like that of soldiers during a war; you want the unity of power, and you desire that it shall never be brought into question. What England has obtained by the development of her pride and self-interest (a part of her creed) cannot be obtained in France but through sentiments due to Catholicism, and none of you are Catholics! Here am I, a priest, obliged to leave my own ground and argue with arguers. How can you expect the masses to become religious and obedient when they see irreligion and want of discipline above them? All peoples united by any faith whatever will inevitably get the better of peoples without any faith at all. The law of public interest, which gives birth to patriotism, is destroyed by the law of private interest, which it sanctions, but which gives birth to selfishness. There is nothing solid and durable but that which is natural; and the natural thing in human policy is the Family. The family must be the point of departure for all institutions. A universal effect proves a universal cause; and what you have just been setting forth as evident on all sides comes from the social principle itself; which is now without force because it has taken for its basis independence of thought and will, and such freedom is the parent of individualism. To make happiness depend on the stability, intelligence, and capacity of all is not as wise as to make happiness depend on the stability and intelligence of institutions and the capacity of a single head. It is easier to find wisdom in one man than in a whole nation. Peoples have heart and no eyes; they feel, and see not. Governments ought to see, and not determine anything through sentiment. There is, therefore, an evident contradiction between the impulses of the multitude and the action of power whose function it is to direct and unify those impulses. To meet with a great prince is certainly a rare chance (to use your term), but to trust to a whole assembly, even though it is composed of honest men only, is folly. France is committing that folly at this moment. Alas! you are just as much convinced of that as I am. If all right-minded men, like yourselves, would only set an example around them, if all intelligent hands would raise, in the great republic of souls, the altars of the one Church which has set the interests of humanity before her, we might again behold in France the miracles our fathers did here."

"But the difficulty is, monsieur," said Gerard,—"if I may speak to you with the freedom of the confessional,—I look upon faith as a lie we tell to ourselves, on hope as a lie we tell about the future, and on charity as a trick for children to keep them good by the promise of sugar-plums."

"Still, we sleep better for being rocked by hope, monsieur," said Madame Graslin.

This speech stopped Roubaud, who was about to reply; its effect was strengthened by a look from Grossetete and the rector.

"Is it our fault," said Clousier, "that Jesus Christ had not the time to formulate a government in accordance with his moral teaching, as did Moses and Confucius, the two greatest human law-givers?—witness the existence, as a nation, of the Jews and Chinese, the former in spite of their dispersion over the whole earth, and the latter in spite of their isolation."

"Ah! dear me! what work you are cutting out for me!" cried the rector naively. "But I shall triumph, I shall convert you all! You are much nearer to the true faith than you think you are. Truth always lurks behind falsehood; go on a step, turn round, and then you’ll see it."

This little outburst of the good rector had the effect of changing the conversation.


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Honoré de Balzac

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Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "XVII the Revolution of July Judged at Montegnac," The Village Rector, trans. Katharine Prescott Wormeley in The Village Rector Original Sources, accessed October 3, 2022,

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "XVII the Revolution of July Judged at Montegnac." The Village Rector, translted by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, in The Village Rector, Original Sources. 3 Oct. 2022.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'XVII the Revolution of July Judged at Montegnac' in The Village Rector, trans. . cited in , The Village Rector. Original Sources, retrieved 3 October 2022, from